Episode 2: What is Sustainable?



Hi this is Lisa, and you’re listening to the Conscious Communication Design Podcast

I’m a design researcher and educator and I  want to talk about how we can make communication design sustainable. 

How we can be conscious about our decisions, and what impact we and our work have on the world and how we can use our skills for positive change.

It’s the second episode of this podcast but it’s already coming out later than intended. The reason for this being that I just received my second vaccine and unfortunately felt quite ill after. 

Of course, any healthy thirty-something year old -like myself- would ask themselves in this situation, whether a COVID infection would actually be as bad as the side effects that may occur after the vaccine. Those definitely are thoughts that went through my head. 

But of course, that doesn’t matter. In my opinion, the fact that being vaccinated reduces the risk of me endangering others, especially the more vulnerable, is the only thing that matters. And for that, I certainly can endure the – in my case- harsh side effects. So please keep the greater good in mind, if you’re still on the fence about whether or not to get the vaccine. And chances are your side effects aren’t as bad anyways, my body can be a bit of a drama queen sometimes.

I celebrated my vaccine by giving a little to the Unicef campaign “Get a vaccine – give a vaccine”,  as while European states are prepping for the third booster vaccines for vulnerable and elderly people, Afrika’s population for example has less than 2% of it’s population vaccinated to date.

I thought this was a suitable topic to talk about as it also offers an introduction to the topic of this episode: what is sustainable? 

Bit of a big stretch from vaccines to sustainability you think? Ok, hear me out. 

Seeing that you’ve found your way to the second episode of this podcast on Sustainable Communication Design, chances are, you will have heard of the most frequently quoted definition on Sustainability as it was termed by the Brundtland Commission: the UN World Commission on Environment and Development: “sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition always reminds me of the Native American saying: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

I’ve shared houses and apartments with quite a lot of people over the years and always set myself the rule to leave a common room as I found it or a little bit better. If all people in a household did this, the breeding ground for arguments is stopped in its tracks. 

Now imagine having this outlook on your existence on this planet. You’d need to make sure that your life on this planet doesn’t have a negative impact on the planet. That already seems impossible. 

How many greenhouse gases are generated based on your actions can be measured. There’s a wide range of carbon calculators for individuals out there, for example:



However, carbon emissions aren’t everything. 

That’s what bothers me about the term climate action as well. It focuses on one aspect of the environmental crisis we are in, neglecting the mass extinction and pollution of our soils and oceans with plastic that is breaking into micro-particles that we will need to learn how to extract again if we want to keep getting nourishment from this planet. 

So, we might not be able to reduce our negative impact to 0%.  Yes, you can pay for offsetting. And that is indeed important as well. But I believe it should be a last resort, and only done if the emissions can’t be averted. This had me so depressed in the past that I genuinely questioned if being on this planet is ethically feasible, knowing that every day in my existence contributes to the destruction of our environment. 

But things have changed. People have woken up and become aware of the crisis and that we all need to work on rescuing our environment if we want to continue living on it as a species. It’s become easier to be environmentally friendly and to promote eco-conscious behaviour and actions without being labelled as a hippie. Quite on the contrary, it’s actually on trend now. Thank you Greta!

So I propose we look at it that way: Let’s leave the planet as we found it, or a little bit better. And that’s not as difficult to do. 

Commonly named in relation to sustainability are the three P`s:




If we want to make decisions that are conscious and sustainable, we need to make sure they don’t harm either of those three or better yet, support all three. 

We need to design for people by considering accessibility, equality and diversity, respecting different cultures, and by giving back. Giving back can be as quick and easy as a donation, but often more valuable is the transfer of knowledge. What you are acquiring through listening to this podcast is specialist knowledge which is difficult to obtain, so please do talk about what you learned, talk to your clients and colleagues about it, help those around you, volunteer. 

This is also where I build my bridge to the vaccination topic: the vaccine may be your personal decision, but from a sustainability standpoint, we always must consider what is best not just for us but for the people around us, and especially those that we don’t see, we need to think outside our social bubble.

We can design for the planet by respecting all the resources we are using, and how we use them. There is no such thing as waste in the material world, absolutely everything is and stays a resource. Things end up in landfills because they’ve either been designed with so many compound materials that they cannot be taken apart anymore, and hence not recycled, or because they are soiled or people have been too lazy to separate the object into its individual components. But this is also mostly the result of poor design. There IS such a thing as waste in the digital world – data that is stored and not used, that is using up the planet’s resources without any benefit for anyone. THAT, we have to avoid. 

And we need to design for profit because no business is sustainable if it isn’t economically viable. Think about producing ineffective design communication. THAT is wasteful, costly, and of no benefit to anyone. We can use environmentally conscious business practices as a vehicle for your business strategy. 

And this can be done for example through certifications or accreditations, which validate your business as a serious economic player, and in addition, adds policies to abide by, giving you clear instructions on what to do. 

Let’s have a look at certifications and their limitations.

In general, there’s one big problem with certifications: they encourage people to abide by the standards of the certification rather than thinking beyond that and striving for what is possible.  

One certification that is – from my standpoint – really quite holistic and transparent,  is the B Corporation, or “B Corp” Certification. 


In their own words: it goes beyond product- or service-level certification. “B Corp Certification is the only certification that measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance. The B Impact Assessment evaluates how your company’s operations and business model impact your workers, community, environment, and customers. From your supply chain and input materials to your charitable giving and employee benefits, B Corp Certification proves your business is meeting the highest standards of verified performance.”

Filling out the first questionnaire to get the certification process started takes 2-3 hours and then 6-10 months to get validated, according to their website. Also, only 1 of 3 applicants receive the certification.

While this might sound disheartening, it also speaks for the credibility of the certification.

The assessment consists of questions that are tailored to the company’s size, sector, and geography. The questions revolve around governance, workers, community and environment.

Some of the questions  in the “Environmental” category are for example: 

If you lease your facilities, have you worked with your landlord to implement energy efficiency improvements, waste reduction programs or water efficiency improvements?

Does your company monitor and record its universal waste production?

What % of energy used is from renewable on-site energy production for corporate facilities?

So that’s the first part, you fill out the assessment, you then receive a report card which allows you to compare yourself with other companies that have done the assessment. 

It shows you your companies overall score on a benchmark scale, and, because it is in comparison to other B corporations, the labels on the x-achsis of the scale read “Good”, “Great”, “Outstanding” and “Extraordinary”. The average of a B IMPACT SCORE of 80 is at “Great”.

Isn’t this lovely? You get into this club of genuine do-gooders and the worst mark you can get is “Good”! That’s what I call a high standard.

And the individual breakdown of the score will already give you a good idea of what to improve on, which is the third step.

The B Corp Certification is powered by B Lab, a nonprofit organisation, “that serves a global movement of people using business as a force for good.“ So far they have 4000 companies in 70 countries certified. 

While there definitely are always ethical issues with certifications and accreditations, I find B Lab deals with theirs in a very transparent manner. They have a complaint procedure and their own page dedicated to controversial issues in which they publish statements on decisions they had to make in the past, especially in connection to specific industries, for example, bottled water companies, cannabis-related products, the prison industry, zoos aquariums and animal parks, it’s long and VERY interesting list. I’ll put the link in the show notes.


The assessment tool is free and straightforward to use, so definitely give it a go! 

An Irish researcher and Visual Communication Designer named Con Kennedy has done some research on the sector and its shortcomings and opportunities in the past. One of his findings was that Irish designers were lacking a business strategy. They started working freelance or in a small agency and basically set the whole thing up without a real plan. After a while then they find their niche by landing a client in a specific area or doing a specific project that went well and then getting similar projects or clients through word of mouth. 

Now this phenomenon might be quite typical for the Irish market, as a lot of business here is acquired by word of mouth and perhaps this influences the lack of awareness for strategy in design startups. But no matter what the country or market we are talking about, a strategy can help a business set itself apart from the competition. Environmental consciousness can be a Unique Selling Proposition and marketing tool. 

However, we need to be very mindful that if we use Eco-consciousness to market ourselves, that we do this very mindfully, as we don’t want to be green-washing 

The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, and the practice is even older. 

Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly.

It can however be done unintentionally as well. If you just started thinking about this recently, and are still new to sustainable business practice, then maybe don’t claim the environmental-stamp on your corporate design just yet. 

What I mean is green leaves or plants in the logo, the word green in your name or even using green as a corporate colour. 

To be honest, this kinda stuff is very outdated at this stage. That was ok in previous decades, but in the last couple of years, the world has woken up and is aware of the need for sustainability in every business practice. 

What is a better idea is to include a page on your website with your business’ environmental policy and the commitments you make to your clients and the planet. This shows you’re taking things seriously. If you’re a pro and doing absolutely everything you can to have the most sustainable business you can, you have an evolved environmental policy that you stick to, and you specialise in specifically environmentally friendly practice, then by all means, put it in your name and be proud of it! 

I’m sure we’re going to have more badges and certifications for designers as well in the next years. If you know of any that I haven’t mentioned yet, please do get in touch, I’d love to hear also about certifications for designers in other languages and countries!

What other interesting certifications do you know of? Please let me know!

help me spread the word about this podcast so that we can have a discourse, and this doesn’t remain a one-sided communication. You can get in touch with me through twitter or instagram, the handle is @ccdbylisa in both. 

Please like, share and follow the podcast on whatever app you’re listening to it, and tell other designers about it. 

I’ll talk to you next week, where I’ll look at choosing the right medium/platform for communication.

Until then, thank you for listening and take care!

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